Discovering O’Casey—and Parnell (February 9, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I’m a lit guy. I’ve taught it for 35 years. But as I learned when I hung out a bit with my college professors, you can’t read everything.

Finally, yesterday, I arrived at Sean O’Casey. Talk about roundabout! I’d first heard his name, oddly enough, when researching a wonderful reference to a Joyce story in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. An Irish playwright. Had written about Parnell. Didn’t know who he was. But I was too busy to keep my nose to the trail. Then O’Casey’s name came up again a few years later when I was reading up on Shane MacGowan and The Pogues’ Irish influences; the title of their LP Red Roses for Me is clipped from O’Casey’s work, and their politics and portrayal of proles owe much to the playwright’s own vision. Finally, earlier this year, as I read Sam Stephenson’s Gene Smith’s Sink (yeah, I know, could I please shut up about that book?–but it is the epitome of a gift that keeps on giving), I learned that among the more than 20,000 LPs that Smith left behind when he died, among his two very favorites was a Caedmon Records release of O’Casey reading excerpts from his work. Apparently, Smith listened to the record with near-religious devotion.

My kind of record!

It was time. I browsed to Discogs, located a copy, ordered it, and it arrived early this week. Sat down and listened to it yesterday: wow! Side A features passages Juno and the Paycock and Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well–O’Casey’s accent is so thick that I will have to have the texts in front of me eventually, but it is so musical and beguiling a text is really required. Side B, from Pictures in the Hallway, is easier to follow, particularly a conversation between two men in a pub in which they discuss Parnell–ahhh, Parnell! finally!–and his legacy. One of the greatest figures in Irish Republicanism (author’s note: thanks to a couple of wizened friends, I now know Parnell was a nationalist, not a purveyor of republicanism–a bad beginner’s error!) inspires a magical conversation. It would have been perfect to use in illuminating that passage in A Lesson Before Dying…but alas.

Anyway–man, I wish Caedmon Records (now Caedmon Audio) ostill put out records–vinyl–like this, but I am not sure the necessary audience exists. These, my friends, are far different from a standard author-read audiobook. I’d link you to a clip from the above, but one doesn’t exist at present. Here’s one, though, from a Caedmon recording of Dylan Thomas:

Note: While I was recovering from O’Casey’s spell, I learned that, in 1957, MGM released a recording of Faulkner reading from his works, notably an excerpt from The Sound and The Fury (“Dilsey”!) that is now exceedingly rare. Another grail for me to seek–let me know if you have clues.

Short-shrift Division:

Andrew Cyrille: Special People–I’ve listened to no jazz artist more this year than one of the greatest drummer-composers in the music’s history. Give the man props while he’s living, I say.

The Residents: Duck Stab / Buster and Glen–It’s been too long since their intense and mildly frightening sounds (especially on this release) have graced The Lab.

Sorry, Vijay (February 8, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Iyer

Ever listen to a record a few times, find it doesn’t stimulate you, relegate it to the very back shelf–then hear it months later and realize you must have been in a dullard’s state of mind? Perhaps it’s the Heraclitus Effect as applied to music: you can never listen to the same album twice.

This happened to me yesterday. I have been shedding CDs, I’ve almost reached the end of the process, but I keep finding discs that have lain dormant too long. I needed to refresh the CD box I keep in my truck, and scanning my new, relatively Spartan shelves, my eyes came to rest on Mr. Vijay Iyer’s 2017 release, Far from Over.

I am a big fan of Iyer’s. Both his compositions and interpretations are imaginative and challenging; he’s a very precise pianist who sounds to me as if he’s always got specific architecture in mind. Though he works with fellow players who are very much in the moment, and though I am sure both live and on record he makes spontaneous choices, the structures of his pieces are too complex and solid to be fully improvised (it seems to me, at least). I’ve been fortunate enough to see him live, and he’s fascinating to hear–he can turn a room into a kind of crystal palace, and that’s a compliment. Also, he has great taste in drummers. Often, of late, he’s worked with the magic Marcus Gilmore; in the past, and last year on Far from Over, the astounding MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Tyshawn Sorey has been behind the kit. Also, from his work with Mike Ladd to date, Iyer’s no stranger to artistic activism, and the title of his 2017 work has been understood to refer to his reaction to the 2016 U. S. presidential election.

So–what’s not to like? Well, I had played that sucker twice after it arrived on my doorstep, and (from what I remember) it had struck me as too ethereal, too static, and maybe too much of a good Iyer thing–in other words, maybe I’d reached saturation point with his work, which an experienced listener can indeed recognize from a good mile away. Also, the album was released by ECM, a label that I suspect has aimed diabolically, deliberately, and for years enmesh jazz fans in webs of cheesecloth, soft-focus sound. As such, it was a perfect candidate for discard, but I respected the man too much not to give it one more chance, particularly since it checked off a couple of very important boxes for me.

Good news! I was wrong! I must have been distracted, hung over, depressed–something–because the album, I’m now happy to say, is a minor classic. Why? Vijay’s playing has a simmering anger and defiance that keeps the promise of the album’s title, and sounds to me like another refutation of the complaint that his work is too cerebral (as if that’s necessarily a bad thing, and as if that complaint, in more base vocabulary, hasn’t been frequently voiced by our present administration). The band is equal to the mood: Graham Haynes (often evoking early-70s Miles on cornet, fluegelhorn and electronics), Steve Lehman (a criminally undercelebrated altoist), Mark Shim (on penetrating tenor sax), and Stephan Crump (truly one of contemporary jazz’s great bassists) are at their best here. Most exciting, though, is Sorey’s muscular drumming–the guy can do anything in the engine room, but I haven’t heard him in creatively raucous mode in a long while, and that mode is something to behold. And–bottom line–I am different now than a year ago: clearer headed, maybe understanding the meaning of “dug in” a little better, with more records under my belt (including Ernest Dawkins’ Transient Takes, on which Iyer plays slashingly on the 88s).

I’ll be holding on to Far from Over. Sample it yourself, but if you don’t believe me, give this festival set a listen, and you should hear what I mean.

I Got Hitt (February 7th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been divesting myself of non-essential CDs. I finally reached the end of my task, and brought the fourth and final box in for trade yesterday, to the patient folks at Columbia’s very essential Hitt Records. Taylor and Kyle, the store’s heart and soul (I am not sure which is which–kinda like Mick and Keith in that regard), are patient, knowledgeable, funny, and extremely enthusiastic. Taylor, two of whose siblings I’ve had the pleasure to teach, is one of several “Swiss Army Knife people” in the Ragtag Cinema complex; I knew him first as a local musician, but when I think of him I think of Brazilian music, something we share a passion for. Kyle is remarkably kind and thoughtful–not that Taylor isn’t–and for some reason reminds me of what Gram Parsons must have been like (without the substance abuse issue): lanky, Southern, and laid-back. They are the kind of people you want to meet when you enter a record store.

As usual, they were rockin’ a great record when I showed up with that last box. I had intended to, um, dump and run (parking in Columbia sux), but…this record began kicking my ass when I opened the door to enter, then just kept kicking it, then starting moving it, then the fever spread into the rest of my body, and my mind. What is this beast? It is Sabu Martinez’s Sabu’s Jazz Espagnole.

“Is that for sale?” I asked, pointing to the album’s cover, which they had on display.

“It’s yours,” Taylor grinned (you can grin a declarative sentence).

You see how they operate! Click the link above, and you’ll also see how I was rendered so vulnerable to his salesmanship. Jazz Espagnole is one of the best Latin jazz recordings I’ve ever heard, primarily because the balance between the two elements is so precise, and because the playing is so hot: Sabu, of course, making the congas holler and moan, and his alto saxophonist Bobby Porcelli lacing most tracks with fiery figures. Each side opens and closes with a brash Martinez flurry; side A’s dominated by originals, side B by expert be- and hard bop covers (a “Woody ‘n’ You” that Dizzy would laud, a “Nica’s Dream” moodier than Horace Silver’s own). I’ve played the thing thrice since I exited Hitt with it.

I also picked up a vinyl copy of Eddie Palmieri’s classic Molasses, and Taylor further taunted me by showing me a slab he’d picked up for a dollar: a live Harlem River Drive album, recorded at Sing Sing! This time I fooled him by being to dumbstruck to ask if it were for sale!

Please visit Hitt if you’re in Columbia, Missouri. You will leave with a record.

Short-shrift Division:

Roy Eldridge: Little Jazz, Let Me Off Uptown, and Little Jazz: The Best of The Verve Years

Buoyancy (February 6th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

My wife Nicole and I have a long-running routine when we find ourselves sitting rapt in the midst of musical mastery.

Say we’re listening to The Stooges’ Funhouse. Characteristically, we will sit silent as the waves of thick riff-heat rifle through us and Ig’s hell-fired hollers wash around and over us, then one of us will break the silence by saying:

“I dunno–if these guys weren’t such sensitive pussies they’d be really good.”

Or Howlin’ Wolf:

“Honestly! I don’t know why they make a big deal about Wolf. His singing is so laid-back, and I need some intensity when I listen to the blues.”

Or The Ramones:

“This shit needs some synths or some strings or something. It sounds like demos, plus it drags.”

I love how the routine emerges unprompted–as it did again yesterday. We had just endured some absolutely horrid music at a local Chinese restaurant: either we were hearing some godforsaken album or a satellite radio station programmed by Satan, but the dreck was super high-school-choir-y a capella, the final song being a medley of hit movie themes for which some twisted asshole had written lyrics which summarized said movies! When we got home, I knew we needed to cleanse our minds and ears in a special way (no, DeBarge would have been the exact wrong thing), so I queued up Jimmy “Mr. 5 x 5” Rushing’s wonderful The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq, a neat concept album that “tours” the locales–outside of Kansas City–where the great jazz singer made a major dent: New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Rushing is backed on the record by a crack Buck Clayton-led band (his entire output while on Columbia is worth your time, especially a long-time house favorite, Rushing Lullabies), and is his usual irrepressible, high-spirited self. At the time of the recording, Rushing was already almost 40 years into his career, and sounds like he’s making his first record!

Nicole: “I wish we had a CD of that a capella movie tribute stuff. This Jimmy Rushing is so…uninspired.”

Me: “Yes. It lacks…buoyancy.”

Hey, click the track at the top, as well as the hyperlink for Rushing Lullabies, and you be the judge.

Short-shrift Division:

Jimmy Smith: Bashin’–The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith (Arrangements by Oliver Nelson)–“Bombastic” might not seem to be a good arrangement idea for a Smith session, but it actually works. A neat tension.

Shirley Scott: Queen of the Organ–She was, and here Stanley Turrentine weaves some serious blues sax in and out of her lines.

 

Teenage Titan (February 5th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I bet every Wanda Jackson fan can remember where they were when they first heard her.

My good friend Bryan Stuart and I were riding up U.S. 67 after midnight, sometime in the mid-Eighties, on the way to his home in Jacksonville from Little Rock. Of course, we had the radio on–Arkansas when it’s late at night, you know. We’d just witnessed a classic show–Gatemouth Brown, with Webb Wilder and the Beatnecks–and we were in very high spirits. Suddenly, a feral voice ripped a hole in our post-concert meditation:

Some people like to rock

Some people like to roll

But movin’ and groovin’s

Gonna satisfy my soul!

I was like, “Fuck!”; I like to avoid degrading the language, but that is what I was like. At that point in my life, I was still foolishly believing I knew what I needed to know about rock and roll history (bulletin: I still don’t). Before it’d started, the song was over–ahhh, rockabilly–and like thunder claps after lightning cuts the skies, our minds were cuffed in the ensuing silence.

“Who the hell was that?”

I didn’t know, and I don’t think Bryan did. Oddly, I was sure the singer was black*, though today she doesn’t sound at all that way to me–as if one can always tell. Eventually, some way, the Queen of Rockabilly, the Wildcat of Maud (Oklahoma), Ms. Wanda Jackson, was revealed to me, and she’s been a fixture on my turntables ever since. Singing on the radio before Elvis did, forced by the Opry to cover her shoulders (she never went back), writing songs in class instead of doing homework, deliberately aiming to bring a Marilyn Monroe-influenced sexual shock to the early rock and roll stage, she is a true heroine–she did all that before she’d turned 19.@

This all comes to mind because I’m engrossed in her excellent new autobiography Every Night is Saturday Night. It’s charming, spunky, and revelatory–and you forget it’s a still-active octogenarian telling you the story, one of the last titans still standing.

*Oddly, Wanda is described on her Wikipedia page as belonging to the genre of “black country rock.” But I get that. And by the way, did you know that the Jackson classic “Fujiyama Mama” was a cover version?

@Nicole and I were lucky enough to see Wanda play here in Columbia in 1998, in the old parking lot of Shakespeare’s Pizza, with Robbie Fulks opening. She was very high energy–and she was 60 then!

Short-shrift Division:

SZA: CTRL–As I told my students last week, it is great time to be alive if you’re an r&b fan. This young lady can really write–in some ways, it’s one of the most confessional r&b recordings ever–and she has an ear for settings that is white acute. A St. Louis, Missouri, product.

The Lester Young Trio–1944. Prez in amazing form (check the stunning “I’ve Found a New Baby”!), and Nat King Cole’s very fleet and fluent pianistics provide a bracing contrast to Young’s laconic lines.

Ms. Lincoln’s Fire (February 4th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

One of the great jazz documents of the Civil Rights Movement is Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, featuring Roach’s powerful drumming, lyrics by the great Oscar Brown, Jr., a surprising and scintillating appearance by grand ol’ man Coleman Hawkins, and the defiant vocals of Roach’s then-wife, Abbey Lincoln. Recorded in 1960, it’s an essential listening experience for observers of Black History Month (personally, I make it a year-long occasion).

Less well-known is Lincoln’s Straight Ahead, a kind of sequel to We Insist! released in 1961, with Roach back in the drummer’s chair, and blazing support from the dynamic duo of Booker Little on trumpet and Eric Dolphy on his magic reeds. Also, Hawkins is again present, and jazz fans will recognize that the names Mal Waldron, Art Davis, and Julian Priester further ensure a very high performance level. Straight Ahead is less explicit than its predecessor; also, its tone is more celebratory, with adaptation of pieces by Harlem Renaissance stalwarts Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes shining brightly. Lincoln also sings the heck out of “Blue Monk,” for which she provides lyrics. However, the record ends on an appropriately steely note, with Lincoln’s own “Restribution.” All in all, it might be my favorite record by a singer who merits a reintroduction to the listening public.

Short-shrift Division:

Carnival continued at the Overeem abode with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band’s Jazz Begins, recorded on the streets of New Orleans by Atlantic Records in 1959. Kudos to my friend Paul Howe for putting it in my ear-line!

Blues ‘n’ Tonks from the Pierces (February 3rd, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Traditional New Orleans jazz (not otherwise known as Dixieland or ragtime) experienced a major if short-lived comeback, with local legends who’d been playing around town on a regular basis for years suddenly finding themselves recording for Atlantic. These records are hard to find these days, but they are warm and very wonderful. My favorite series is Riverside’s Living Legends of New Orleans Jazz, which featured trombonist Jim Robinson, legendary pianist Earl Hines (a Pennsylvania ringer), clarinetist and saxophonist Louis Cottrell, multi-instrumentalist Peter Bocage, and (my favorites, and also recorded by Atlantic) the husband-wife cornet-piano/vocal team of De De and Billie Pierce. The couple, who passed away in New Orleans within a year of each other in 1973 and 1974, are underrated in the general annals of American music and aren’t exactly the first names the gen-pop think of when New Orleans comes to mind. However, they made much dynamite, intimately raucous music together, with Billie’s lusty blues vocals and saloon-tinted tonk piano the spark riding down the fuse. Sometimes I think she’s major.

Try the full album (above) and, since it’s Carnival Time, seek out Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure, where you can glimpse the pair at work, though not in this clip.